How Chicago Artists Have Made the City Streets a Walking Gallery

Michelle Litvin

Beyond galleries and museums, Chicago’s vibrant experimental art scene is woven into the urban fabric, spilling out onto the streets, remaking the city itself.

On a recent trip to Chicago, I found art everywhere, turning up in the most peculiar places. I found it growing out of an abandoned lot on the South Side (from seeds sown by the urban designer and activist Emmanuel Pratt). I found it in the backyard of a private house in the neighborhood of East Garfield Park (where the artist Edra Soto and her husband, Dan Sullivan, built a semi-open-air structure they call the Franklin). I found it in a purse. (For years the performance artist Meg Duguid has run a 25-square-inch gallery called Clutch out of her wooden handbag.) Throughout the three days I crisscrossed the city exploring its vibrant, grassroots art scene, I experienced a giddy sense of surprise and excitement on a level that I hadn’t felt since living in Manhattan in the ’90s, or in Berlin over this past decade.

Chicago Art
 A community project by Emmanuel Pratt’s Sweet Water Foundation. Courtesy Sweet Water Foundation

Chicago’s artists have shaped the city itself, not just its walls and streets, but its very mechanics. Major figures such as Theaster Gates and Nick Cave literally use its architecture as their medium. Kerry James Marshall, one of the most important American painters of the moment, considers the South Side, where he chooses to live and work, to be his muse; his chronicling of life there is central to his creation. Granted, if you wanted to acquire a work by one of these titans, you’d still have to go through their mega-galleries in New York. But Chicago’s scene is driven not by the people who buy the art but by those who make it. If that makes it less commercial, this arguably allows for greater freedom. “The fact that there isn’t a huge gallery scene here is actually to Chicago’s advantage,” said Abigail Winograd, a curator at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. “There is space to be experimental. You don’t need to fit into the mold to survive.” 

Chicago Art
An installation at “Artists Run Chicago 2.0,” on view at the Hyde Park Art Center last year. Courtesy Tom Van Eynde

One of my first stops was the Hyde Park Art Center, an institution founded by a collective of artists in 1939. I was there to check out “Artists Run Chicago 2.0,” an update of a well-received 2009 exhibition that showcased many of the city’s unconventional and, in most cases, transient, creative spaces. It was a joyful explosion of contemporary work: One whole wall was dedicated to the murals of Mujeres Mutantes, a collective of Latinx street artists. Floating above it was a massive organic balloon sculpture from the artist Claire Ashley, one of the props from a reading of Jerry Lieblich’s play The Barbarians, organized by the collective Slow.

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Chicago Art
Roman Susan gallery. Courtesy Roman Susan

Next on my list was Roman Susan, a nonprofit started in 2016 by the artist Kristin Abhalter Smith and her husband, Nathan, and located in the storefront of what appeared to be an abandoned business near the Loyola stop on the El train. Nathan showed me into their oddly shaped triangular room, which at the moment was given over to an elaborate installation of abstract structures built with natural materials by the Chicago-based Rebecca Beachy. It was a sort of miniature postapocalyptic landscape, with only traces of anything alive.

From Roman Susan I walked 15 minutes along a busy strip into the more residential neighborhood of Edgewater, to 6018|North, a once-dilapidated mansion turned experimental-artist collective founded by Tricia Van Eck, a former curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. I found Van Eck on the sidewalk in discussion with a young man from the neighborhood who had stopped to ask about a work in the front yard, part of an outdoor exhibition called “Windows to the World.” The show addressed some of the searing political issues of 2020, which Van Eck described as a “collision of COVID-19, institutional racism, and economic inequality.”

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Chicago Art
From left: In Wood We Trust, by the Chapuisat Brothers, at 6018|North; Artist Nick Cave. From left: JI Yang; Sandro

Van Eck led me to the front door of the house and had me try to open it. I fumbled with the handle and eventually gave up. She pushed it from the left side and it swung open easily. “It’s like society, if you know how to work the system, you can get in through the front door, but if you don’t you are shut out,” she said. As she led me through the house, she commented on the young man she had been speaking with. “That is exactly the point of the work we do, to encourage artistic encounters that connect neighbors.” She then opened the window we were standing next to and urged me to climb out. It led to a narrow tunnel, the entrance of a wooden installation by the Chapuisat Brothers called In Wood We Trust, equal parts maze, playground, and two-story tree house. I had to bend and twist through the tunnels and in some cases look for hidden doors to get to the next level; one minute I was filled with childish wonder and the next I felt claustrophobic.

Chicago’s relatively affordable real estate has made such experiments possible, allowing creatives to use the city’s architecture to take on themes of social justice. Possibly the most renowned example of artist as city planner is Theaster Gates, who has countered the stereotype of artists as powerless gentrifiers. Over the past decade or so, he has taken control of the gentrification process itself by buying abandoned buildings on South Dorchester Avenue in his South Side neighborhood and turning them into cultural spaces for locals.

Two years ago, Nick Cave—famous for his fanciful “Soundsuits”—and his partner, Bob Faust, converted a 20,000-square-foot historic factory in Irving Park into a home, studio, and art center called Facility. They treat their storefront windows as a gallery but also as a place for the local community to express their collective thoughts. Over the summer, as part of their Amends project, they invited people to write their thoughts on racism directly on the glass; they called it “Letters to the World Toward the Eradication of Racism.” By the time I arrived this past October, Faust had erased most of it, leaving only the word vote in gigantic letters.

“The George Floyd incident pushed me to be more purposeful,” Cave told me. “We can use Facility as a testing lab to explore those ideas as well as a catalyst to engage community and generate conversation.” Faust added, “There are thousands of storefronts empty post-COVID. Can you imagine how interesting it would be if the city allowed a few hundred of them to be depositories of individual or community expression?”

Chicago Art
Dan Sullivan and Edra Soto of the Franklin. | Courtesy the Franklin

Early the next day I stopped by the Franklin, the hidden backyard gallery started by Soto and Sullivan, who have helped put on some of the city’s most talked-about shows of emerging artists. From there I went to meet with Emmanuel Pratt. Many local curators had told me that Pratt was one of the most passionate artist-activists in the city at the moment. He is the cofounder of the Sweet Water Foundation, which transformed several abandoned lots on the South Side into a sort of experimental village, complete with an urban farm, a barn that serves as a gallery, a meetinghouse, and a carpentry workshop. I eventually found him striding purposefully through raised beds of kale on his way to the gallery to start a panel discussion, sponsored by the Smart Museum, about the importance of water as a source for life that should be accessible to all.

Pratt, who originally studied architecture at Cornell and moved to Chicago in 1999, told me he left New York because “I needed the space to dream and imagine.” It’s in Chicago that he has found space— literally and conceptually—to ask and answer the questions, What should an urban neighborhood for the 21st century look like? What is a gallery? Who decides what art is?

Big questions. But one thing is clear: Artists in Chicago are attempting to create the world they want to live in. As Pratt said to me before I left his scrappy Garden of Eden, “In the 21st century, the city is our canvas.”

Chicago Art Viewing Guide

Art Institute of Chicago
The venerable institution, founded in 1879, is set to reopen early this year.
artic.edu

Blanc Gallery
Bronzeville gallery founded by Cliff Rome and Eileen Rhodes.
blancchicago.com

Facility
Irving Park cultural project founded by Nick Cave and Bob Faust in a disused factory.
facilitychicago.org

The Franklin
Artist-run space tucked away in an East Garfield Park backyard.
thefranklinoutdoor.tumblr.com

Hyde Park Art Center
The city’s oldest alternative exhibition hall.
hydeparkart.org

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
A downtown hub for exhibitions, performances, and discussions.
mcachicago.org

Roman Susan
Experimental gallery in a Rogers Park storefront.
romansusan.org

6018|North
Show space and cultural center in a once-derelict Edge-water mansion.
6018north.org

Sweet Water Foundation
Art and urban farming converge on the South Side.
sweetwaterfoundation.com